Holland Society Executive Administrator Sarah Bogart Cooney sat down with the Society’s 2021 honorees, Carolyn McCormick and Byron Jennings, on October 2nd, 2019. They will receive the Society’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts on Saturday, October 30th, 2021. Learn more about our Medalists in the interview below!
Carolyn McCormick grew up in Houston where she attended The Kinkaid School. She received her BFA from Williams College in Massachusetts and her MFA from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She is perhaps best known for her role as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet on Law & Order. Her many Broadway and off-Broadway performances include Equus, The Dinner Party, Celebration, Biography, Dinner with Friends, Black Tie, Ten Chimneys, and Privilege.
Byron Jennings is a renowned stage actor with an extensive resume. His New York theatre credits include: Broadway: She Loves Me, You Can’t Take It With You, Macbeth, Arcadia, and The Merchant of Venice. His off-Broadway credits include: Plenty, On The Open Road, The Twenty-seventh Man, and Ten Chimneys. He was most recently seen on Broadway in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. His film credits include Lincoln, A Simple Twist of Fate, and The Ice Storm.
Sarah Bogart Cooney: How did you meet?
Byron Jennings: We met for the first time in San Francisco—
Carolyn McCormick: —doing Arms and the Man (by George Bernard Shaw) at ACT (American Conservatory Theater) in 1983. We got together in 1987 when we met again to do a play called There’s One in Every Marriage, a Feydeau farce—
BJ: At the Old Globe in San Diego.
SBC: You’ve done many plays together—when you are doing a play together, do you get into character when you’re at home?
CM: No, but we do work out blocking stuff—we don’t work out the characters but we do things like, “When you bring me the coffee, can you bring it later?” or “can you move the chair here?” It’s just the technical stuff that makes up the scenes, but I don’t think we ever go into character.
BJ: I would say not.
CM: But we do talk about moments, we’ll talk about what we think is working, what we think isn’t. And “do you have an idea of how to fix this?” “This isn’t working, this entrance, this exit, this moment isn’t reading”—we do discuss those things.
BJ: We had a particularly interesting time when we were doing a production of Macbeth at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which we decided to do—it was close by and there were a lot of nice people there, talented people. So we decided to do Macbeth. She did Lady Macbeth to my Macbeth. We had a wonderful time. We really did end up rehearsing a lot, together, at our house.
CM: And we would be having dinner and I’d say, “Okay, so, when I come out with the knives—” and we’d have our knives, and we’d be on our little porch and if anyone could see us, they’d probably think “what are they doing up there?” So I would say, “I’m going to hand you the knives, but you have to take it here, because I’ll get blood on my white dress, and I can’t get blood on it because I have to wear it in the next scene—”
BJ: The technical elements were worked on very specifically.
SBC: You’ve been married for some time now. Do you find that your personal relationship helps inform the characters you’re playing, if the characters are a couple?
BJ: I don’t know about that, because I haven’t ever found that the circumstances in a relationship that I was trying to explore for a role would have been that close to my relationship with Lynnie.
SBC: So you don’t find your personal relationship mirrors Macbeth?
BJ: That’s good.
CM: Except for how you deliver the knives. But yeah, it’s interesting, because I think that what I find the most comforting, because I do a lot of theatre where there are different levels of talent, sometimes, but what I love when I’m working with Byron is that I know he’s going to deliver the goods. So I don’t think so much about him as my husband, just him as an actor. He’s going to be capable of figuring out what the story is, what part of the story needs to be told here, how to play it, how to react to it, how to map that scene out as best as possible. It’s like playing tennis with an equal player. It’s really fun to see Federer and Nadal play each other. I like that aspect of it.
SBC: Have you had the chance to work with someone you admired before you became an actor?
CM: There’s some people that you admire and then get to work with and they can prove to be very all about themselves and not a generous actor or actress, and other people live up to your expectations. But it’s like anything. You do get disappointed sometimes. The selfishness that some actors display—that’s what I’ve experienced. When it’s “this is about me, it’s not about the bigger story, it’s about my part in the story.” And that is less appealing to me because you think, “Oh, I thought you were such an interesting actor and now I just think you’re kind of all about you.” But Byron, you’ve had similar experiences.
BJ: Well, yeah, I guess for me a lot of it has to do with if I were able to really focus on someone I felt was very talented, I felt that it was less personal than it was technical. I was very interested in trying to figure out what are they doing there, how do they do that, do I do that, can I do that, is that possible? I think I was very fascinated by their talent and ability and comparing, perhaps, myself, and learning and wanting to learn from them. I started out, I remember very clearly, I went to acting school in London for three years, and I had the opportunity to be—not the opportunity, I lied my way into employment as a dresser at some of the theatres in the West End, and I think along with what I was learning from school, a lot of what I actually came away with had to do with watching really great acting being done on stage night after night after night, and being allowed to process that, and say, “watch, just watch them. Do it.” And I could talk to them—so it was a great education. It’s hard to distinguish, perhaps, for actors, an attraction to somebody that is not purely personal or technical, but kind of a combination of both.
SBC: Do you have any favorite actors now who you like working with?
CM: I like working with my husband.
BJ: That is certainly true. We do love that, we take any opportunity that is presented to us to recreate that.
SBC: What has been your personal career highlight to date?
CM: I will always be grateful that I got to play Saint Joan. I will always be grateful that I got the opportunity to work on a lot of Pete Gurney plays (Black Tie, Family Furniture, What I Did Last Summer). When you’re older, like we are, you look back and you see patterns. I’ve done a TV show for a long, long time, playing this character, Dr. Olivet on Law & Order—I never imagined that defining me in any way. So I find myself thinking, how interesting that this little tiny part on a TV show that represents perhaps a fifth of me—and the commitment, and the time I’ve worked on it over the years, it’s not very much. It’s interesting. When you do a play, you dedicate so much time and energy to exploring the character and learning what the arc of it is, and the story, and the beauty of it—I just did A Man for All Seasons and I loved working on that play. I loved researching Henry VIII, I loved the whole theme of living up to your highest self, especially in this climate, and the idea that you are living by your conscience, that you have to sleep at night, and you have to behave according to what allows you to sleep at night. With plays, you spend so much time and energy researching and working and then you play it for six weeks or six months or a year, as opposed to a television show, when you do it a few times a year. One day you go in, you shoot the scene, boom—it’s such a different animal. But then that has a much wider-based audience, so it becomes a much more defining animal.
BJ: It’s impossible to choose just one. I do have high points—one of them was Arms and the Man. There was something extraordinary about that production that I will never forget. There was something extraordinary about She Loves Me that I will never forget.
CM: And your Richard III—
BJ: Playing Richard III, well, for the second time, that was extraordinary. Playing Hamlet for the second time was extraordinary. There are great roles of course—you are going to have a unique experience playing roles like that. You almost can’t help it. Lynnie mentioned Saint Joan. If you have the opportunity to do Shaw, and you have the guts for it, it’s pretty hard to beat.
CM: It’s great, and you’re grateful to get the opportunity to tackle these roles. It’s not always successful, because there’s always elements—there are so many things that go into a play. The cast needs to be all on the same level. The director needs to be in tune with everyone. The design needs to work. The story needs to be told. When all the stars align, so to speak, those are the moments you are very grateful for.
SBC: Byron, when you were in She Loves Me, the show was filmed for BroadwayHD (an online subscription service that allows viewers to watch theatre at home). Would you like to see more plays filmed like that so that they could reach a wider audience?
BJ: I would. Because obviously there is an enormous audience that isn’t able geographically or financially to experience those things and I think it’s a wonderful gift for those people.
CM: My father and his wife couldn’t come to see She Loves Me but they got to see it [thanks to BroadwayHD] and it was great and they were so happy to have that opportunity. And it’s not like the archives at Lincoln Center, where you go and can watch a play that’s been filmed, which is done only for archival purposes. Broadway HD records live theatre with multiple cameras, different angles, and close-ups so the experience is captured in a complete way. I wish Broadway HD could film even more plays, but it is very expensive and time-consuming. It’s a great thing, though, and it’s a great opportunity for people who can’t get to New York City to see wonderful theatre.
SBC: And you get the whole show, instead of just a snippet.
SBC: Is there a historical period you feel most at home playing?
BJ: No, not for me.
CM: You’re very good though with more classical plays—you’re less inclined to be attracted to the contemporary pieces.
BJ: Okay, that is true.
CM: You tend to like your Shakespeare, your Shaw, your Ibsen and your Chekov.
BJ: Yes, yes, that is true, I am attracted to the classics and have always been, because I started off with Shakespeare, and will always find a way to go to a classical piece as opposed to a modern one.
SBC: Lynnie, what about you?
CM: I love Shaw and I love Chekov, I like Shakespeare, but I find I’m always intrigued by new playwrights. I do a lot of new plays, I love working on new plays, I love being able to contribute to the dramaturgical aspect of playwriting, and I think I’m very helpful sometimes, in terms of knowing just how to structure the play and make certain things more clear, and that’s why I actually love to work on new plays.
SBC: You met in California and had been there for some time—why did you decide to move to New York?
BJ: We kept thinking about it and talking about it—
CM: He didn’t want to live in LA, so we moved to New York.
BJ: Lynnie very graciously, unselfishly, said that she would give up her life in Los Angeles. So that was a huge thing, because we felt those were our only options. We could come to New York, because we both loved the theatre, or we could stay in Los Angeles, and I would have killed myself. [Laughter] No, but it was a very difficult decision, and I have always been so grateful and thankful that my wife allowed us to—
CM: —blow up her nascent career in film and television—
BJ: She did. She blew up a lot of stuff, you can imagine. She was on her way. And yeah, we decided to come here. We were here… after a little more than a year of leaving San Diego together to try to figure out what we were going to do and then we were here in ’89—?
CM: We got an apartment here in ’87 or ’88, and then we kind of had a base here but we went around to Baltimore, or New Haven, or Seattle, San Diego, Denver, and did lots of plays for about three years. And then we finally said, “Let’s just go back and stay put in New York.” And then we just started to focus on being in New York, and I got a role on Law & Order, and he started working on- and off-Broadway, and then we had kids, and we both decided not to travel any more at all and just raise our children. So we’ve been very much New York-based and not traveled. We went to LA briefly, for about a year when our first son was one and I was doing a series out there, but once our boys started school in the city we stayed in New York.
SBC: What’s the last thing you do before you step out on stage?
BJ: Frankly, the last thing I do, I will have found by then a place next to the stage and I will 100% of the time find a stairway of some kind close by so that I can just go up and down and up and down. I get my blood up and my breathing and just get myself really, really warm and that’s the last thing I do before I get to my place.
CM: The last thing I do before going on stage is to remind myself to just listen and let it happen. I also like to jump rope to warm up my entire body and the get circulation going throughout my extremities.
SBC: We’re a genealogical and historical society. Have you researched your genealogy?
CM: I haven’t. I think my husband has, though. I have not, and I don’t know why I haven’t. I just sort of assume I’m Scottish, Irish, German. That’s just what’s in my head—I have no idea why I think that.
SBC: Are you interested in researching your genealogy?
CM: Yeah, I am. It’s just on the back burner, there are so many things that I feel I do want to do. As an actor, sometimes you have a list of all these things that you want to do, and suddenly you get really busy, and then all those things get pushed aside. Like you start a book and then you have to read all these scripts and then you get back to the book. My kids always say, “Mom, it takes you so long to read a book,” and I have to tell them, “Because I keep getting interrupted.” I’ll work for a period of time, then have to read scripts and research and stuff like that. So genealogy is one of those things where I say, “yeah, I want to do that,” but I haven’t.
SBC: Lynnie, you’ve played Dr. Olivet over the course of Law & Order. The show doesn’t go into personal backstories of the characters.
CM: That was a deliberate thing on Dick Wolf’s part. He did not want to get caught up in the mothership, the original Law & Order. I’ve done SVU, and I’ve done all the spin-offs of it, and those scripts get a little more into backstory. But the original Law & Order he did not want get into backstories, because then you kind of go down a rabbit hole of, if you put these two characters together, then at some point it’s going to get boring, so then you’re going to have to have them fight and break up, and then it goes into this soap opera realm of it—which is perfectly legit and fine, but he didn’t want to go there. And also, he was originally doing Law & Order to sell in syndication as two half-hour shows, Law and Order, cops and then the lawyers. This was back in the ’90s, so now that’s not so much an issue with selling it to cable, but I think that was really the idea behind it, originally, and he was adamant about not getting into any personal stuff.
SBC: Did you come up with a backstory for Dr. Olivet?
CM: Well, I was pregnant on the show twice, both my children, so she had to have had some kind of backstory because you can see that I’m pregnant—I look enormous. I am enormous. That’s not looking. And they would try to hide it, in a way, but you can tell. And then when I left, after my second child was born, they made my character like, she runs a childcare in the forensic world… I don’t remember exactly, but they were following that, because now Dr. Olivet isn’t working as much because she’s now working with children who need help. Which I thought was kind of sweet.
I spent most of my time thinking about what it is to really listen to someone, not what just what they’re saying but also all the stuff that’s implied around what they are not saying. Playing Dr. Olivet for all those years really taught me how to listen on camera and stay very objective, because if you get at all subjective, you aren’t doing your job. So being unreadable or “boring” was very important to being who she is. I have great admiration for that woman and the skill of ascertaining whether or not someone is being abused… to be able to see and understand that is an amazing skill.
SBC: There’s one episode of the show that really stuck with me—a woman whose father murdered a little boy and hid him in their apartment building. When the woman was being interviewed by Dr. Olivet, she kept saying “I’m basically a happy person,” when it was clear she was not.
CM: I think I remember that, the woman was played by Mary Joan Negro.
SBC: Yes, that’s right.
CM: Yes, I do remember that episode. Some of them, they all blend together, but that one I do remember.
SBC: That episode really brought home to me the power of the mind and how it protects itself.
CM: And that people live in denial. I think that’s why people love that character. I get a lot of fan mail from prisoners—I think that they feel like this character would understand them, what drove them to do what they did. But that’s her job. I say to my acting students, “If you’re playing Iago, Iago doesn’t see himself as a bad guy.” You’d have to figure out why this person behaves this way. Because empathy, and not judging the person but really trying to understand why you are the way you are, is essential. And that is part of genealogy in a way, in a scientific way, but there’s also an emotional track that makes people behave the way they do, and it has everything to do with what their experiences have been to date and how they’ve decided to make their way in the world be it legitimately or illegally. But Olivet, I always thought, was very good at understanding and empathizing without judgement. She just reads the facts and presents them accordingly.
SBC: If our readers would like to see more of your work, what would you recommend?
CM: Well, I have a website (www.carolynmccormick.com) and you can see everything I’ve ever done there. I’ve done a lot of audiobooks, which I think are very good. I did the whole Hunger Games series before the series was a phenomenon. Plays come and go. I just finished shooting a movie in Kentucky, in Louisville, called The Overlook. It’s a Lifetime movie and it will come out in the next year. I do a lot of Democratic political voiceovers. I never know really what’s going to be next down the pipe. I don’t have a play lined up at the moment, but they will suddenly just come along, and if it works out with my schedule and my life, I will do it. The last play I did was A Man for All Seasons, which I loved. It was a great play. I loved working on it and I loved listening to it every night. When you’re doing those great classics it’s so fun to just listen every night.
The 135th Annual Dinner of The Holland Society of New York will take place on Saturday, October 30th, 2021 at the Lotos Club on East 66th Street. Carolyn and Byron will be awarded the Society’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts during the Annual Dinner. For more details, please see the back cover of the magazine or contact the Office.